The activists who helped force Hong Kong's government to withdraw a controversial anti-subversion bill in September launched a new campaign Thursday aimed at giving citizens the right to elect the chief executive of this quasi-autonomous region.
The group, which includes leading pro-democracy legislators, prominent lawyers and academics, said its goal was to push through reforms to allow the people of Hong Kong to elect their chief executive through universal suffrage in the next election, which is scheduled for 2007.
"Power should be returned to the people," Legislative Council member Margaret Ng told reporters at a news conference.
Ng said the activists' aim was to stimulate debate that would broaden public support and generate enough pressure for the change.
"We need consensus in order to move ahead," she said.
The move comes a day after the Legislative Council voted down a motion calling for direct election of the chief executive and all legislators.
If the reformers succeed, Hong Kong will become the first large city under Chinese rule to elect its leader democratically.
Under the terms of its hand-over to China from British rule six years ago, Hong Kong enjoys limited autonomy from Beijing and many basic rights of a democratic society -- including free speech -- but suffrage is strictly limited.
The territory's current chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, was appointed in 1996 by a committee of 400 prominent residents. He was reelected unopposed to a second five-year term last year by an expanded group of 794 people approved by Beijing. Twenty-four members of Hong Kong's 60-strong Legislative Council are directly elected; the rest are appointed. Voters are scheduled to fill 30 positions in the council in elections next year.
Thursday's initiative follows one of the largest public protests in the territory's history. In July, more than half a million residents took to the streets to oppose the proposed anti-subversion law, which many feared would severely erode freedom of expression.
The protest not only derailed the bill, but for the first time gave ordinary citizens a sense that they could influence Hong Kong's political process.
Until that day, few residents -- including the most ardent pro-democracy advocates -- believed direct election of the chief executive was a realistic short-term goal. Now activists talk confidently of expanding democracy in Hong Kong and making it a model for mainland China to follow.
"The people of Hong Kong moved a mountain with that march," former Democratic Party leader Martin Lee said in a recent interview. "But there are more mountains to move."
Despite such confidence, activists warned Thursday that securing the required constitutional changes to allow direct, universal voting would be an uphill battle.
Prominent civil rights lawyer Gladys Li noted that the changes needed the backing of two-thirds of the Legislative Council, a number that at present seems out of reach.
After a council debate earlier this week, only 21 of the 48 members present voted for a motion that would have required the government to draft a document on direct elections that would have been debated by lawmakers.
"We have a long way to go," Li said.
Researcher Tammy Hong of The Times' Hong Kong Bureau contributed to this report.